NEW YORK — This city is crazy for cupcakes. There are cupcake classes and cupcake tours, lines down the block at cupcake bakeries, a cupcake tea at a five-star hotel, and a cupcake truck with 6,000 followers on Twitter.
Some date the cupcake craze to a "Sex and the City" episode in which Sarah Jessica Parker bit into a pink-frosted cupcake outside Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street. Nine years later, tourists still flock to the place. Current owner Steve Abrams has opened two more Magnolia shops in the past year, with a third to open soon in Grand Central.
"I love 'Sex and the City' and I want to eat cupcakes," said Rika Hashizume as she bought a box of cupcakes at the flagship Magnolia in Greenwich Village with Hanika Nishida, a friend visiting from Kyoto, Japan.
"I don't know how long it takes for a trend to end and become mainstream, but apparently we've established an industry," said Jennifer Appel, who was one of Magnolia's original owners and now owns Buttercup Bake Shop on Second Avenue near 51st Street.
"You'd think it would reach its peak but it hasn't — people are still into cupcakes, and I don't see it slowing down," said chef Melanie Underwood. Her cupcake classes at Manhattan's Institute of Culinary Education always sell out, with long waiting lists.
Not only is the cupcake's small-size portion appealing, but "it's almost like a comfort food for many people," Underwood said.
"They bring a smile to people's faces," said chef Stephanie Grajales, who created the menu for a $25 cupcake tea at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. "It takes you back to elementary school cupcakes on your birthday when you were 5."
Underwood leads cupcake walking tours to various bakeries, and she's noticed that participants have sharply different opinions on which cupcakes are their favorites. "People have such different palates," she said.
Fortunately, the city has so many cupcake outlets that there's a cupcake for everyone, from vegans to sugar addicts to gourmets. Here are 11 places around Manhattan to get the cupcake of your dreams.
BABYCAKES NYC: 248 Broome St., between Orchard and Ludlow streets, Lower East Side, http://www.babycakesnyc.com. When you order, be ready to answer: "Gluten-free or spelt?" BabyCakes cupcakes are vegan: dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, and most are sweetened with agave nectar. Customers with wheat allergies take the gluten-free ($3.95 each); the spelt are made from a high-protein grain often used as an alternative to regular wheat ($3.25).
But don't worry — the cupcakes are just as delicious as any made with white flour, sugar, butter and eggs. The lemon is blissful, and the vanilla is so intense and infused with flavor that kids accustomed to bland, mindlessly sweet or artificially flavored vanilla might have to be convinced that this is what vanilla really tastes like.
BAKED BY MELISSA: 529 Broadway, Soho (pick-up window on Spring Street between Mercer and Broadway), http://www.bakedbymelissa.com. The city's cutest cupcakes, beautiful bite-size confections with a tall cap of fluffy frosting. Don't be fooled by the pretty rainbow swirls in the tie-dye variety — it's vanilla. Other flavors include cookies & cream, peanut butter cup and cookie dough. At 12 for $10, mix and match a dozen.
BILLY'S: 184 Ninth Ave., between 21st and 22nd streets, Chelsea, and 75 Franklin St., Tribeca, http://www.billysbakerynyc.com. Billy's is a popular neighborhood spot, with a classic chocolate cupcake with sugary frosting that will remind you of the ones mom made for your third-grade birthday, $2.25. Specialty flavors like the delicious banana are $2.75.
BUTTERCUP BAKE SHOP: 973 Second Ave., between 51st and 52nd streets, and 141 W. 72nd St., http://www.buttercupbakeshop.com. Stand-outs here include cupcakes inspired by classic desserts like German chocolate cake, rich with coconut; and Lady Baltimore, an almond white cake covered with meringue, cookie crumbs, coconut and a cherry; $2 each.
CRUMBS BAKE SHOP: Locations in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California, with 10 in Manhattan including 43 W. 42nd St., across from Bryant Park, and 1675 Broadway, at 52nd Street, http://www.crumbs.com. Cupcakes here are a blast from your sweets-filled past, with flavors like Twinkie, Devil Dog, Heath Bar, peanut butter cup, caramel chew, Butterfinger and Nestle Crunch, in addition to traditional varieties, $2.50-$3.75.
CUPCAKE CAFE: 18 W. 18th St., and 545 Ninth Ave., between 40th and 41st streets, http://www.cupcakecafe-nyc.com. Open since 1988, Cupcake Cafe was a pioneer in Manhattan's cupcake craze, and its cupcakes remain the most beautiful of any in the city. The frosting on each cupcake is a tiny work of art, bearing colorful flower blossoms, intricately rendered in buttercream, a reflection of owner Ann Warren's background as a painter and visual artist.
But while "the cupcakes are the main claim to fame," regular customer Daniel Brewbaker says he also comes for excellent coffee and cafe conversation. "This is the place where friends congregate, and that's what a coffeehouse has always been," he said. One of Brewbaker's favorites is the outstanding walnut cupcake with maple frosting; $2.50 or $3.50.
CUPCAKESTOP: http://www.cupcakestop.com. Check the truck's daily location at http://twitter.com/CupcakeStop.
The cupcake truck's owner, Lev Ekster, graduated in May from New York Law School. Law firm jobs were hard to come by, but Ekster noticed that the bad economy hadn't hurt the long lines outside Magnolia and other cupcake shops. He decided to sell cupcakes.
"But it was hard to find a brick-and-mortar location," he said. "A truck was the most affordable way to go to get the business started."
And so the CupcakeStop was born, a mobile cupcake truck. Devotees follow Ekster on Twitter to find out where he'll be; flavors include Key lime and rocky road as well as classics like red velvet, $2.25 (minis, $1).
Ekster says cupcakes are "the ideal mobile food" for 21st-century New Yorkers on the go: cupcake in one hand, and coffee (or maybe an iPhone) in the other.
KYOTOFU: 705 Ninth Ave., between 48th and 49th streets, http://www.kyotofu-nyc.com. Kyotofu's chocolate souffle cupcake contains miso and tofu, and the frosting is made from white bean paste. But this is a cupcake any dessert-lover can enjoy, so good it won New York Magazine's best cupcake award in 2007 — beating out more conventional cupcakes all over town.
Of course, this is not the place to go for your fix of super-sweet buttercream frosting and dense devil's food cake. But the cupcakes are light, delicious and flavorful. The green tea is as sublime as the chocolate souffle; $3.25 each.
MAGNOLIA BAKERY: 401 Bleecker St., Greenwich Village; 1240 Sixth Ave. at Rockefeller Center; and 200 Columbus Ave., near 69th, http://www.magnoliacupcakes.com. These are the city's most famous cupcakes, thanks to "Sex and the City."
"If you come to New York one day, and you have a list of things you want to do, we're on a lot of lists," said owner Steve Abrams, who bought Magnolia three years ago.
Abrams sells a few million cupcakes a year, "but we bake small batches all day long, and that's why there's a wonderful smell in our bakeries." Cupcakes are $2.50 or $3.
THE RITZ-CARLTON: 50 Central Park South, on 59th Street near Sixth Avenue; http://www.ritzcarlton.com. Maybe you can't afford to stay in the Ritz-Carlton hotel across from Central Park, but chances are you can afford to sample the hotel's luxurious ambiance in the form of its unique and delightful cupcake tea, at $25 per person plus tax and tip. No paper napkins here, just linen.
"We wanted to provide a Ritz-Carlton-quality experience but at a more affordable price point," said hotel spokeswoman Jennifer Oberstein. Why cupcakes? "Cupcakes are happy and fun," she said.
The experience includes mini-cupcakes in five flavors, plus a choice of tea, hot chocolate, milk or chocolate milk. Chef Stephanie Grajales reached back into classic Americana and her own childhood memories to create the cupcakes: pistachio, which she said was inspired by a Carvel ice cream flavor; Valrhona chocolate, for anybody who loves devil's food; coconut cream, like the best pie you ever had; a classic red velvet; and her crowning achievement: an utterly perfect strawberry shortcake cupcake topped with whipped cream, stuffed with strawberry preserves — just like the cake her mom used to make on her birthday.
The Ritz's cupcake teas are offered Saturday and Sundays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., through Oct. 31; reservations, 212-521-6125.
SUGAR SWEET SUNSHINE BAKERY: 126 Rivington St., Lower East Side, http://www.sugarsweetsunshine.com. Want some party with your cupcake? Sugar Sweet Sunshine has a fun vibe and an in-your-face attitude, with thrift-store furniture, a huge photo of Jackie Kennedy on the wall, music from the '60s and '70s, and a $1.50-per-cupcake price that even hipster artists can afford. The pistachio is sensational, the pumpkin nicely spiced.